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Monday, July 8, 2019

Stories from the Land of Crane and Turtle: Wenabozho and the Butterflies

"Wenabozho and the Butterflies"

Updated: Gashkadino-giizis/Baashkaakodin-giizis (Freezing Moon), November 2, 2022


Ojibwe-style wedding rings designed by Zhaawanart Fisher star Creations
Visit the website to view details of the ring set


Boozhoo, aaniin! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Ningad-aawechige noongom giizhigad! "Hello my relatives, I greet you in a good way. Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge, a place of love and knowing. Let's share a teaching today!"

Today's story is part of a series titled  Stories from the Land of Crane and Turtle, featuring traditional Anishinaabe stories that encompass the unique world view and cultural perspective of the Anishinaabeg Peoples. 

The story features a set of wedding rings and three graphic illustrations by myself as well as several acrylic paintings by the late Carl Ray and Miskwaabik Animikii (Norval Morrisseau). 


A Dancing Butterfly Shows Us the Way

Memengwaa Niimi miinawaa Miikanaakaw: “A Dancing Butterfly Shows Us the Way,or, more literally, A Butterfly Dances and Prepares a Trail." Thus is the title of these unique, handcrafted wedding bands. (The literal translation of miikanaakaw is: he or she paves the way for someone.")

The title as well as the design of the wedding bands are inspired by a memengwaakwe (butterfly woman) who lives in Mishigami Aki, the Land of the Great Lake, and who, on a beautiful sunlit day, out of the blue, landed on my shoulder, her gentle spirit filling my heart with many bright colors before she spread her wings and disappeared into the vast sky, and it is she to whom I dedicated this story.

Before I tell you more about the design symbolism of the rings, let’s start by exploring the meaning and significance that memengwaag, or memengwaanhyag as my Anishinaabe relatives who live farther to the east call them, had in the hearts and minds of gete-aya'aag, our ancestors. These beautiful People, called Ojibwe or Ojibweg by many, have dwelled for at least a thousand years Anishinaabe Aki, the Heart Land of the Peoples of Gaa-zaaga'iganikaag (the Place Of Many Lakes)...


Norval Morrisseau dyptich
Acrylic on canvas dyptich by the late Miskwaabik Animikii (Norval Morrisseau)



The Power of Enchantment

"When Aki, the world, was still young, the beings of all animal Nations were created. They were gifted with a body, a shadow, and a soul. But they still had no powers. One day, all animal Nations were summoned to come to the high mountain. This is where the animals received their gifts of power.

First, migizi the bald eagle was gifted with strong wings and a keen sense of sight. Then, makwa the bear was gifted with courage and strength. Then Nenookaasi (hummingbird) and memengwaa (butterfly) were gifted with the power of hovering and fluttering and sublimity, mystery, and divine presence. And to this day, nenookasiwag the hummingbirds, as do memengwaag the butterflies, display one of the greatest of all powers: THE POWER OF ENCHANTMENT...."


The Creation of Turtle Island

Ahaaw, ningad aadizooke.
( “Now, I will tell a traditional Anishinaabe story.”)
This is the sacred Anishinaabe story of Giizhigookwe, beloved creator and grandmother of mankind, and the manidoo (spirit) Wenabozho, friend and benefactor of the Anishinaabe Peoples…and about how they created the Earth, the Anishinaabeg…and the butterflies.
“Many moons ago – when the World was still young -  the Mishi-ginebigoog, the Underwater Snakes, inveterate enemies of the mischievous but good-natured Wenabozho, in their fervor to kill him, inundated the First World with water from the depths of the Great Lake, and he barely escaped the flood by seeking refuge in a tall pine tree on the top of a high mountain.

At the same time there lived an aadizookaan, a supernatural being, residing alone in the sky. Her name was Giizhigookwe, or Sky Woman. GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery of Life, pitying her loneliness, sent a male aadizookaan to Sky Woman to keep her company. Animikii (Thunder), for that was his name, traveled to the sky lodge of Giizhigookwe and from the union that took place were born the Anishinaabeg (a twin brother and sister), whom she planned to lower on the back of a giant Mikinaak (snapping turtle).
Sky Woman's Dream Vision, painting by Zhaawano Giizhik © 2022 Zhaawano Giizhik


But first Giizhigookwe had to convince Mikinaak to lend his back to the re-creation of the world, because at that time the Underwater Snakes had flooded the earth below her and most animals had been drowned in the Great Flood that had hit the First World. As Sky Woman learned that a few animals had survived the flood she called to her aid the giant turtle. He came to the surface so that she could sit on his back and call others to her side. Maang (the  loon), Amik (the beaver), Nigig (the otter), and Wazhashk (the little muskrat) were among her helpers.
That day, long ago, after she had descended from her sky lodge to the newly-created world in the shape of a turtle’s shell, dancing all the way down in a sacred manner, she addressed the water animals as follows: 
“I don't have all the powers of creation that GICHI-MANIDOO has. But I am a female spirit and I have a special gift. I have the power to recreate. I can recreate the world GICHI-MANIDOO created, but I can't do it by myself. I need your help. We had better create some land. Let someone dive deep and bring me a handful of the original soil made by GICHI-MANIDOO. The soil will be the seed I use to recreate the Earth.''
All the water animals, who loved the female spirit from the Skies, pledged to help her and all day long they took turns trying to reach the soil covered by the great depth of water - but to no avail. Nigig the otter dived down. He could not reach the bottom and just before he drowned the others pulled him back onto the Turtle’s back and revived him. Maang the loon dived, and he failed too. And so did the others. At the end of the day it was only Wazhashk the little muskrat, not used to swimming in deep water, who had not given it a try. The brave little animal decided that with no one else available to help it was up to him to do the job. He took many deep breaths and dived down and down.
As he finally came back to the surface, tayaa, what do you know! Wazhashk had clutched in his paw the soil from the bottom of the sea! Tenderly the grateful Giizhigookwe took the soil from little Wazhask’s paws, dried it and breathed life into it, then rubbed it on the turtle's back. She rubbed the soil round and round and as she did so an island took shape above the water. With the aid of Ma'iingan. the Wolf, Giizhigookwe continued to move over the new soil. Ma'iingan and she walked in wider and wider circles; some say it took them 14 summers to complete the job. And so the Earth was recreated. Forever after the Anishinaabeg called this newly created world "MIKINAAKOOMINIS, " or "Turtle Island."

The Nurturing of the Twins

The new island was finally complete, Giizhigookwe’s purpose on earth was nearly fulfilled, and just before she danced her last sacred dance upward into the fading light of the sky, she again summoned the awesi’ag (animals) to council and called upon them to help her nurture the boy and girl to manhood and womanhood. Since the awesi’ag were very fond of the niizhoodeg (twins) they promised Sky woman they would do everything in their power to bring comfort to them and help them survive: Animosh the dog, watching over the abinoojiiyensag (babies)Onijaani, the doe, providing them with milk to nurture them; and Ma’iingan, the wolf, bringing them freshly hunted meet so they would not starve. Makwa, the bear, in turn offered his thick curly fur to keep the infants warm, and Amiik the beaver and Wazhask the muskrat volunteered to bathe the abinoojiiyensag to keep them clean. Giigoonh the fish, in turn, taught the niizhoodeg to wave their little arms and legs around, and Bineshiiyag, the birds, sang sweet lullabies to them.

Copper Thunderbird painting
"Heavenly Twins Give Gift Of Life", acrylic painting by the late Miskwaabik Animikii


Meanwhile, Animosh the dog performed his babysitting job with great enthusiasm, enh, with every fiber of his being! One single sound of the twins was enough to have him jumping to his feet with ears cocked and his tail wagging. When he found out what troubled the infants, he would solve the problem or call the other animals to help him.

Did the niizhoodeg need fresh moss for their cradle? Animosh would not hesitate and turned to Amik and Wazhask for help. Were the niizhoodeg hungry? Animosh would run to the great hunter Ma’iingan for fresh meat, or to Onijaani, to give him some of her nourishing milk. 

Did the flies and musquitos keep the abinoojiiyensag awake? Animosh asked Asabikeshikwe (spider woman) for help – or, if he would not find her at home, he himself would jump and snap at their tormentors until the abinoojiiyensag nearly split their sides laughing. Did the niizhoodeg indicate they wanted to be amused? Animosh would do all kinds of hilarious tricks to keep them busy. He would roll around on the earth rolling his eyes and wagging his tongue, then sit up and wag his tail. And he would tickle them by licking their noses, and he did so as long as it took to make them shriek with happy laughter. Then, when the abinoojiiyensag were finally quiet again he would lie down beside them and cover his eyes with his paws, and rest until he was needed again. 


Animosh and the Twins Woodland art print by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Animosh and the Twins," illustration by Zhaawano Giizhik ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik

But after a while it became clear that something was wrong with the niizhoodeg. This time it was Makwa the bear, worried about his two little protégés, who called upon all the awesi’ag to congregate and sit around the infants.

Aaniin nisayedog ashi nimisedog gaye! (Hello brothers, and you too sisters!)" Makwa said, "Like you, I am worried about the abinoojiiyensag because they cannot walk! Sure, they look strong and are obviously happy and having a good time with our brother Animosh, but alas! They cannot run and play like our own young! What do you suggest we can do to help them?"

After a moment of thoughtful silence Ma’iingan spoke first. “Atayaa! Geget gi debwe!  (Indeed! You are really speaking the truth!). The abinoojiiyensag are definitely not weak! They do eat the meat that I bring them each morning at daybreak."

Onijaani, the soft-spoken doe, calmly agreed with Ma’iingan.“Debwe, the niizhoodeg certainly drink the fresh milk that I bring them daily."

Then Amik the beaver and Wazask the muskrat exclaimed in one voice: "TayaaGeget gi debwe! Good golly, this is certainly true! The abinoojiiyensag definitely have a way of waving their arms and legs with great strength as they are being bathed! They even splash us until we are soaked and losing our temper! Then they laugh at us for being cranky and continue waving their legs and arms about as if nothing happened!"

Hereupon Giigoonh the fish quietly chuckled, “Enhaahaaw, Amik and Wazashk are right eh! The Anishinaabe niizhoodeg are good students, they do exactly like I taught them to do heh heh!"

The Great Teacher Wenabozho and the First Butterflies

Aadizookaan Nanabush
"Wenabozho Telling Stories"
illustration by Zhaawano Giizhik
Giigoonh had barely finished his sentence when a gentle spring breeze swept softly over the water of the nearby lake like a welcome visitor. The breeze, sending forth catkins from the azaadiwag (poplars) that were awakening from their winter sleep, brought comfort to all the creatures of earth! As it blew through the camp where the awesi’ag had gathered, inashke! in walked the great teacher Wenabozho or Trembling Tail, also known as Misaabooz the Great Rabbit or Hare! Wenabozho had escaped the wrath of the Mishiginebig by climbing a tall tree and, after the earth was recreated, he walked throughout the land, blessing all of Creation by naming the waters, the mountains, the trees, the plants, the animals, and the birds.

Boozhoo, mino-gigizheb nisayedog miinawaa nimisedog omaa noongom!", Wenabozho spoke, "Hello, it is a good morning my elder brothers and sisters gathered here today! Today GICHI-MANIDOO sent me on a special task, to play with the niizhoodeg, the twins who Sky Woman has lowered to the newly-created earth in order to create a new human race!"

Makwa the bear rose to his feet and, standing on his hind legs, he welcomed Wenabozho. Acting as a spokesperson for all awesi’ag present that day, Makwa told Wenabozho of their concern. Wenabozho listened carefully to the account Makwa gave and after a while he said:

Hoowaah! You all have taken good care of the Anishinaabeg (the Humans) indeed! What is more, you have cared so well for them that they have not learned to take care of themselves! Little ones are better off when we do not pamper them too much. We really should motivate them to undertake things by themselves instead of always handing them things on a biskitenaagan (birch bark platter). Therefore, I shall travel to the faraway land of my Father, where the sun sinks in the sea, and think of ways to help the abinoojiiyensag to learn how to walk."

Wenabozho bade the council of awesi’ag farewell and journeyed to the land of the Grizzly Bears where his father E-bangishimog and his brother Maajiigawiz ruled, where there are high mountains towering to the sky and covered with a thick blanket of clouds, and there, standing in this most sacred place, he addressed GICHI-MANIDOO seeking the inspiration he needed to find a solution.

As he was petitioning the Great Mystery in full daylight, his eyes squinting against the bright sunlight breaking the clouds that made the mountain peaks shimmer in tints of silver and gold, Wenabozho noticed that the rocky slopes of the mountain he stood on were covered with many sparkling pebbles, gemstones really, of countless brilliant hues such as bright red, crimson, yellow, blue, white, amber, and azure!

Wenabozho squatted among the glistenig rocks and started to collect as many pebbles as he could and created many piles that shimmered in the sunlight. He gazed at the piles for a long while, but nothing happened. At last, bored and restless, he scooped up a handful of the sparkling gems and let them fall clattering. Grinning, he scooped up another handful, and twice he threw them high up in the air, catching them as soon as they fell back. But when he tossed the pebbles for a fourth time, hands outstretched, tayaa! To his astonishment he noticed that this time they were being caught by the winds! The pebbles immediately changed into winged beings of the most fantastic shapes and colors!

These enchanting beings, whom no creature or spirit dwelling the Universe had laid eyes on before, fluttered gaily around, gracefully dancing in the wind, before they eventually alighted on Trembling Tail’s shoulders. In the twinkle of an eye Wenabozho saw himself surrounded by swirling clouds of continuously changing, kaleidoscopic colors! 

These were the nitami-memengwaag, the first butterlies…


Carl Ray Woodland Cree painter
"Butterfly" by the late Carl Ray


Wenabozho, understanding that he had found the answer to his prayers, left the abode of his father and brother and returned to Gaa-zaaga'iganikaag, the land of many lakes. Mii go, hoowaah! The thousands of butterflies followed Wenabozho back to the niizhoodeg, who were still in the tender care of Animosh the dog! Upon seeing the swirling clouds of memengwaag, the eyes of the nizhoodeg began to twinkle and soon they crowed with pleasure, their little legs waving and their little arms reaching out to the fluttering creatures! But the memengwaag always fluttered just beyond the grasp of their outstretched hands…not before long, the niizhoodeg, in their efforts to catch the memengwaag, began to crawl, then to walk, and, finally, enh, even to run…

To celebrate this joyous occasion, the niizhoodeg and their faithful guardian Animosh danced around camp, and all awesi’ag present that day joined them in this legendary rite of passage..."


Miskwaabik Animikii painting
"Children See Dreams," acrylic painting by the late Miskwaabik Animikii

Giinweh. Thus is the traditional Anishinaabe story of how the memengwaag came to earth. “And when it is time for the memengwaag to leave the earth” it is been said, “they change into apa’iinsag (elflike beings) who inhabit glades and glens in the forest, always seeking abinoojiinyag (children) to play with...

Thus, to our ancestors, the memengwaag became the spirit of children’s play…in a deeper sense, throughout time, they would become symbols of transformation and regeneration (or rebirth), and thus of change, life, and hope. Of course, in the context of the parable I just related to you, the example of Wenabozo and the memengwaag teaches parents and guardians an important pedagogical lesson – enh, even stresses the importance of us human beings not to become lazy and never stop undertaking things and finding solutions for problems that face us every day!

And this valuable lesson, if I may aid, is exactly what the gifted butterfly woman from Gishigami Aki who inspired me to relate to you this tale, teaches her own children and grandchildren, and because of this I dedicate the beautiful story of Wenabozho and the Butterlies to her... 


Anishinaabe wedding rings
Go to our website to view details of this ring set

About the wedding bands

Midewiwin Life Road diagram

This caprici
ously stylized road with seven side roads or digressions  - an age-old symbol of the Midewiwin Life Road -, depicted in the exteriors of the wedding bands, symbolizes the life path of two persons who share their joys and sorrows with each other. The dancing menengwaag on the insides of the rings show the two life companions the way through the curves of Life and guide them around pitfalls and barriers that they individually and as a couple encounter along the way.
 But above all, the dancing Menengwaag remind them how important it is not just to know how to walk, but how to walk together – and even run together (strive hard) if need be in order to keep their relationship healthy and strong and – in a broader sense - to keep their family and their People well.

On a lighter note, the butterflies in the interiors of the wedding bands symbolize the love between two people – particularly the playful side of love – and emphasize the importance of a positive and happy approach to life.
Dare to be natural and yourself always, is the message. Be happy, light-spirited, and free!

Gaye dash, migwechewendan akina gegoo ahaaw! Also, be thankful for everything!

We hope you enjoyed the story of Wenabozho and the Butterflies as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you. Miigwech for listening. Bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga: please come see me again!

> Click here to read my next story: "Zhoomin and the Vision of the Dancing Corn Plants."
> Return to the New Fisher Star Creations blog menu.

Norval Morrisseau acrylic painting of a butterfly
"Butterfly" acrylic on canvas by the late Miskwaabik Animikii


Woodland artist Zhaawano

About the author:

Zhaawano Giizhik, an American currently living in the Netherlands, was born in 1959 in North Carolina, USA. Zhaawano has Anishinaabe blood running through his veins; the odoodem (clan) of his ancestors from Baawitigong (Sault Ste. Marie, Upper Michigan) is Waabizheshi, Marten. As an artist, a writer, and a designer of Native American jewelry and wedding rings, Zhaawano draws on the oral and pictorial traditions of his ancestors. In doing so he sometimes works together with kindred artists.


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